Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #143
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei
Growing up in southwest Ohio in the 1990s, I was inundated with pro wrestling. T-shirts and trading cards bearing the likeness of Stone Cold Steve Austin and Goldberg were some of the hottest commodities in the halls of my elementary school, and when Booker T brought his TNA tour to my suburb's hockey arena, everyone in town knew at least ten people who were in attendance. I was always a casual fan of the sport; I owned WWF War Zone for the Playstation, and I tried to keep up with what was happening with The Undertaker, whose dark, evil image made him my favorite wrestler. For the most part, though, I was allowed to spend my childhood with a kind of detached fascination with just how fucking into pro wrestling people were. It would probably be fair to say, too, that I didn't totally get it.
Darren Aronofsky's 2008 film The Wrestler is for people like me. Hardcore fans of pro wrestling would probably rather not see the scenes in locker rooms where the wrestlers talk about what moves they'll do on each other and who will win the bouts. People repulsed by the spectacle of pro wrestling would probably rather not see two sweaty, musclebound men throw each other onto barbwire. But I – and, I imagine, much of non-metropolitan America – understand both elements and appreciate the sport for what it is, and Aronofsky's film plugs right into that consciousness. It's not exactly an exposé of pro wrestling even if it sometimes comes off like one; but it's only observational, never condemning. Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke) has a crumbling life – living in a van, hated by an estranged daughter, only able to personally connect with a stripper (Marisa Tomei), a recent heart attack victim and bypass surgery recipient, and downtrodden grocery store deli employee. The brilliance of Rourke's performance comes through in his resilience in the face of life shitting on him so goddamn much. When life finally gives him more than he can take, he goes against his doctor's orders and decides to get back in the ring. Tomei's character, who he fell in love with, comes to the match and tells him not to wrestle, but he ignores her. He gets dizzy during the bout but insists on continuing to fight. As he climbs onto the post to deliver a finishing move to his opponent, he sees that Tomei has left the arena. Then he leaps. Cut to black.
Randy "The Ram" Robinson's life was so indelibly tied to professional wrestling that he would rather potentially die than have to live without it. It's a fairly standard plot device, but Rourke sells his obsession so well – and Aronofsky brings it to the screen so brilliantly – that the movie works better than you'd expect. When Rourke was heavily favored to win the Best Actor Oscar for this performance and it went to Sean Penn in Milk instead, I was smugly happy because I loved Milk, hadn't seen The Wrestler, and thought a portrayal of a gay politician was intrinsically of greater artistic value than a portrayal of a pro wrestler. Now that I've seen The Wrestler, I might still slightly prefer Penn's performance, but none of my smug delusions remain, and I'm extremely impressed by Rourke's work in the film. It's fairly well-documented how much I hate Requiem for a Dream, but that has everything to do with the subject matter and nothing to do with Aronofsky's direction. The Wrestler proves to me once again that when he has a script that I like, he's one of my favorite directors working today.
The Good: Rourke's performance would seem to be the obvious answer, and I probably agree. More specifically, the scenes where The Ram is out of his element working in the deli are some of my favorites. He's alternately charming and destructive, just like in the ring. Also, Marisa Tomei's breasts. Sweet Lord.
The Bad: Not much, really. I wouldn't call it one of my favorite movies but I can't point out anything that it didn't do well.
The Skinny: Yeah, it deserves its place on the list.